The Trump-Moon Summit
If I were Moon Jae-in, I would be pretty happy with the summit. He walked away with both assurances to the alliance and room to maneuver on North-South relations. The parts of the summit that were more bumpy—on trade and burden-sharing—were political theatre and will be subject to negotiations in which South Korea has some leverage of its own.
The Joint Statement starts with the full panoply of reassurances to the Mutual Defense Treaty, including the nuclear umbrella, and the institutions that have grown up around the alliance: the 2+2 ministerial meetings, the Security Consultative Meeting, and the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group. But the pleasant surprise from South Korea’s perspective was that the Trump administration accepted the core of the Moon approach to the North. Key passages could have been written by the Blue House; I reproduce the guts of the Joint Statement on North Korea below. By supporting South Korea’s “leading role” on the North Korean issue, including through “dialogue,” and underlining humanitarian issues, there appears to be ample room for Moon to pursue the economic opening promised during his campaign. Even though the summit yielded no explicit discussion of the Chinese proposal, the overall framing of the issue reiterated the willingness to negotiate and even assurances to the North Koreans on the perennial issue of hostile intent.
Dan Pinkston pointed out to me that South Korea also appeared to exercise some adult supervision with respect to liberal values, in the broadest sense of the term. “…The two leaders affirmed that the strength of the United States-ROK Alliance serves as testament to the power of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and acknowledged that the future of the two countries is linked through people-to-people ties, with more than 1.7 million Korean Americans in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans visiting and working in the ROK each year, and close ties created through cultural programs and student and professional exchanges.” The reference is not only to the advantages from movement of people; it is a deeper jab aimed at the administration’s tepid leadership on normative issues. The memoirs will ultimately tell the story, but it would not surprise me if this language came from the South Korean side.
The one issue that might create some heartburn for President Moon with his base came in assurances he gave to Congressional leaders on THAAD. Further deployment has been suspended pending an environmental impact assessment. But Foreign Minister Kang had already softened up Washington on this issue at the Joongang-CSIS forum earlier in the week. President Moon stuck to that script, saying that the suspension should not be seen as an excuse to withdraw from the commitment. In Moon’s words, "THAAD deployment was an agreement based on the Korea-U.S. alliance to protect the lives of South Korean people and U.S. forces in Korea, and I have repeatedly clarified that my government will not treat it lightly simply because the agreement was reached by the former administration." Will this be interpreted by the left as proof that the environmental impact assessment was just cover to continue the deployment?
President Trump’s ask came on two issues: fair trade and alliance burden-sharing. On the first issue, the president had Secretary Ross and economic advisor Gary Cohn make some edgy remarks about the bilateral deficit and some sectoral issues including autos and intellectual property. But Trump’s views of the KORUS were already well-known, particularly following a gratuitously nasty interview on the topic back in April. Most would agree that there are some gains to made from a second look at the agreement, including—ironically—by incorporating some of the new issues that arose in the TPP negotiations.
But the Moon administration is not without leverage. First, it has plenty of opportunity to reframe the debate, in part by noting the substantial job-creating South Korean investment in the US. As a number of foreign leaders are learning, Trump can be swayed by “concessions” that in fact reflect what would have transpired anyway. Second, if you want to know some of the constraints that are operating on the US side, look no further than Myron Brilliant's defense of the KORUS at Business Insider. Brilliant is Executive Vice President of the US Chamber of Commerce and provides a pretty solid introduction to the benefits of the KORUS to the US. Among them: the leveling effect on the bilateral trade relationship given the panoply of other bilateral trade deals Korea has signed. And third, the idea that Trump can simply rip up an agreement that Congress has ratified is misleading. Congress will ultimately have its say on the issue as well, and given the depth of the relationship there are clearly districts on both sides of the debate.
This pattern might even extend to the Special Measures Agreement, which expires in 2018. South Korea pays about $820 million a year toward the cost of US forces, depending on how the costs are calculated. While that will be the baseline for the next round of negotiations, the amounts are not astronomical. More costly are pressures South Korea will face to buy US weapons systems and to increase its defense effort, commitments that could revive the perennial guns vs. butter debate in the South.
The Joint Statement on North Korea
“Noting that sanctions are a tool of diplomacy, the two leaders emphasized that the door to dialogue with the DPRK remains open under the right circumstances. In reaffirming that resolution of the nuclear issue is a top priority for both countries, the two leaders emphasized that the United States and the ROK do not maintain a hostile policy toward the DPRK and, together with the rest of the international community, stand ready to offer a brighter future for the DPRK, if it chooses the right path. The two sides will closely coordinate on a joint the DPRK policy, including efforts to create conditions necessary for denuclearization talks, through a high-level strategic consultation mechanism.
President Trump supported the ROK’s leading role in fostering an environment for peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.
The two leaders expressed deep concern about the well-being of the DPRK’s people, particularly in light of the egregious human rights violations and abuses committed against them by the government, and noted their intention to ensure sanctions have minimal impact on the DPRK’s vulnerable populations. President Trump expressed support for President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues, including humanitarian affairs. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of cooperating with the international community to hold the DPRK accountable for substantial progress on the deplorable human rights situation in that country.”